Category Archives: Spiritual Exercises

Exercise 56: An Advent Visualization

Background:  This advent, I have been filled with wonder at such a simple image: A pregnant woman, far from home.  She is traveling with her new husband because they have to.  There is no room in the human habitations.  She gives birth in the manger.  The child is something magnificent.

Because one of the sources of this image for me this year is an entire book, it is difficult to tie it into this practice.  Before we get into the nuts and bolts of this practice, I would like to quite heartily encourage you to check out the wonderful book of my good friend Jenn by clicking here.

This post contains the ingredients for many spiritual practices.  The description below is broken into three sections.  The first is an invitation to reading a number of different depictions of the entry into Bethlehem.  The second is a visualization walking the reader through the events.  The third is a series of reflections, meditations, and questions on these events.

I would recommend choosing only one element from each section for a session.  If this feels productive, you might return to this exercise and choose a second reading and series of meditations for your next session.  Less is more with spiritual practices.

There is a value in wondering about the historical details.  But not for this practice, today.  If it is easier, it would be just as helpful to imagine this scene occurring in a city today.  Perhaps, instead of a donkey, Mary rides in a sidecar of an old, broken down motorcycle.  Or her feet have swollen with the pregnancy and she is pushed by Joseph in a wheelchair.

The Practice.

Part A: Some Readings to Choose From

  1.  Release your expectations and stress with three deep inhales and exhales.
  2. Consider one (or perhaps two) of the following passages.  You may wish to read it more than once:   

Click here to read Luke 2: 1-20

Or, read this poem about the event:

If
you want
the Virgin will come walking down the road
pregnant with the holy,
and say,
“I need shelter for the night, please take me inside your heart,
my time is so close.”

Then, under the roof of your soul, you will witness the sublime
intimacy, the divine, the Christ
taking birth
forever,

as she grasps your hand for help, for each of us
is the midwife of God, each of us.

Yet there, under the dome of your being does creation
come into existence eternally, through your womb, dear pilgrim—
the sacred womb in your soul,

as God grasps our arms for help; for each of us is
His beloved servant
never far.

If you want, the Virgin will come walking
down the street pregnant
with Light and sing …

–St. John of the Cross, “If You Want” in Daniel Ladinsky Love Poems from God: Twelve Sacred Voices from the East and West (New York: Penguin Group, 2002), 306-307.

Or read this poem

Sometimes I wonder
if Mary breastfed Jesus.
if she cried out when he bit her
or if she sobbed when he would not latch.

and sometimes I wonder
if this is all too vulgar
to ask in a church
full of men
without milk stains on their shirts
or coconut oil on their breasts
preaching from pulpits off limits to the Mother of God.

but then i think of feeding Jesus,
birthing Jesus,
the expulsion of blood
and smell of sweat,
the salt of a mother’s tears
onto the soft head of the Salt of the Earth,
feeling lonely
and tired
hungry
annoyed
overwhelmed
loving

and i think,
if the vulgarity of birth is not
honestly preached
by men who carry power but not burden,
who carry privilege but not labor,
who carry authority but not submission,
then it should not be preached at all.

because the real scandal of the Birth of God
lies in the cracked nipples of a
14 year old
and not in the sermons of ministers
who say women
are too delicate
to lead.

-Kaitlin Hardy Shetler

If you purchased the book suggested above, you might read the passage depicting Jesus’ birth in that book.  Jesus birth happens in chapter 11 of The Favored One.

Part B.  The Visualization

1.  Inhale and exhale 3 times.  

2.  Bring to mind the reading from above.  Sit with the images, thoughts, and feelings that might have come up from you.  When you are ready, imagine the following.  Try and do it from the perspective of one of the characters in the narrative: Pregnant Mary, Concerned Joseph, even The Donkey or a Jesus who has yet to be born.  Experience this scene with your senses.  

They have been traveling all day.  Are they tired and weary?  Is this faitgue tempered with fear or excitement?  What is the temparature, as they enter into a town that is bursting at the seams?  Imagine them coming into the town.  Are there numerous places that are full?  Are the Roman Solidiers standing by, ready to take a census?     Does the concern on Mary and Joseph’s face grow?  Hear the “clop” of the donkeys heels on the hard ground.  Feel the sweat on the scratchy fabric of the shirt.  

There comes a moment when it is clear that there will be no beds for this night, no roof that was made for people.  What are the feelings you experience at this moment?  Enter into the manger.  Imagine the smells that come to you.  What animals are present?  Are they eating or making their animal noises?  Are their flies?  Are their attendants of the animals?  How do they look at you, as you begin to move around the hay to make your shelter for the night?

Take the time you need to imagine the moments it becomes clear that the baby will be born here.  In this place, at this time.  Does the angelic visitation, and the promises made about this child feel close now?  The water breaks.  How do you feel?  How does your partner feel?  Does a midwife come into the picture?  Is their pain?  Medicine?  Joy?  Blood?

Imagine the first time Mary holds the baby.  How did Joseph look when he first held the baby?  When do they cut the cord?  What happens next?

3.  Continue this scene for as long as you would like.  Return to the readings listed in section A.   if you wish.  I would encourage you to return to a passage you read earlier and try out a new reading the next time you engage this spiritual practice.

4.  Sit with this scene and experience.  Let it penetrate you until it is time to release it.  When you have let it go, consider whether you will sit in a time of wordless union or if you will progress to section C.  Here there are some questions and meditations to consider.

Section C: Some Questions and Meditations

  1.  Inhale.  Exhale.  Bring to mind your experience of the readings in section A.
  2. Inhale.  Exhale.  Bring to mind your experience of the visualization in section B.  
  3. Inhale.  Exhale.
  4. Sit with any one of the following.  Your may wish to save a second or third question or meditation for the future.

I.  Return to that image of Jesus and Mary entering into the town.  Sit with it for a moment.  Now, make the town of Bethlehem your mind and heart.  See Joseph and Mary entering into this space.  What thoughts, feelings, or experiences are you having trouble welcoming?  What difficult realities are you struggling to accept?  See that their is a manger within you.  This is a small, forgotten aspect of your own inner self.  But it is all that you need.  Invite this formerly unwelcome aspect of your own self here.  Soon, Jesus will come into the world from this very space.

II.  See Mary’s belly swollen with life about to enter the world.  Christ is being born in you even now at this very moment.  Sit with this experience of Christ being born in you.   Feel it coming from elsewhere and entering into your world.  Don’t rush this birth.  Sit with what it could mean and how it might change you.

III.  Dwell in the stark, perhaps uncomfortable reality of Jesus birth.  It is no less paradoxical and extreme than any other birth.  Filled with pain and possibility, hope and agony.  It is bloody and scary, intimate and clinical.  Take your time to put together what you have known and experienced of human birth and realize that all this applied to Jesus, too.  After you have sat with this, consider what it might mean.  What does it mean about God?  What does it mean about Jesus?  What does it mean about you?  How does it alter your past?  Your present?  Your future?

 

 

 

  

Exercise 55: Meditations for Each Week of Advent

Background: Advent  is a time of quiet anticipation in the darkness.  Traditionally, the weeks leading up to Christmas have been assigned a theme, signified by the lighting of a candle.  As you try these practices you might join in this tradition by lighting a single candle the first week, a pair the next week, three candles the third week, and four candles on the fourth week.

One expression of these advent themes is hope, peace, joy, and love.

These are four powerful words.  They can be used in a few different ways contemplatively.  In the examples below, the word “peace” is used.  If you wish to follow the traditional themes, of course, you should substitute this word for whichever is appropriate to the week.

One way to use these words is as a method of dismissing disruptive thoughts. We set the intention to sit with calm, untroubled minds.   The word (hope, peace, etc.)  is brought to mind whenever disruptive thoughts or emotions arise.  This is a method used in some Buddhist practices and by the Centering Prayer movement.

One important difference between Centering Prayer and Buddhists who use a word to release our preoccupation with distractions is that Centering Prayer invites us to think of the use of this word as a symbol of our consent for the Holy Spirit’s intervention into our quiet time.  One important thing they have in common is that both groups emphasize the goal of being gentle with the use of the word, and avoiding the hamster wheel of becoming emotionally charged as intrusive thoughts threaten to distract us.  Wise teachers have advocated that we aim for a sense of gratitude each time we use our sacred word and avoid the idea that we are “doing it wrong” each time we return to our practice.

55A: The Practice

  1.  Place your feet flat on the floor.  Take 3 cleansing breaths.  
  2. Release your worries and concerns for this time.  Do your best to clear your mind.
  3. As intrusive thoughts arise, dismiss them by thinking the word “Peace.”  Sink into this word.
  4. Continue this practice for as long as you wish.

 

Background: These words can also be used as a mantra.  A mantra is a word that is used with out stopping.  It is repeated nonstop.  In some ways this is more preventative than the prior strategy.  The hope is that in occupying the mind, we prevent any intrusive thoughts from arising.  I find mantra meditation particular powerful when done out loud.  The word can be chanted or even sung.   I find that after a time, I occupy a strange space of knowing what the word means but somehow also feeling that the word is nonsensical.  This can be a bridge, a case study in the limits of all our concepts and words.

For some, the goal of mantra meditation is to hear the word already being said somewhere deep within.

55B: The Practice

  1.  Create a quite and safe space for yourself.  Light some candles if you wish.
  2. Begin saying (or thinking) your sacred word.  You might begin with a slow and steady rhythm.  Be open to the possibility of chanting or singing.
  3. If thoughts, feelings, or other mental intrustions arise, sink more deeply into the experience of this particular word.
  4. When your time nears an end, release the word.  Sit in a time of wordless union.

 

Background:  As the name implies, breath prayers are words to God that can be offered up within the span of a single breath.  Usually these are repeated several times.  Often times, the inhalation and exhalation are used differently.  For example, a certain phrase might be connected with the inhale and a different phrase connected to the exhale.

Please recall that you might coordinate this with each of the advent weeks.  Though the example below uses the word “peace” you could also use the word “hope” or “love.”

Practice 55C: A first breath prayer.

  1.  Take 3 deep, cleansing breaths.
  2. With the next inhale, think “Peace”
  3.  Exhale the feelings in your heart and body which stand in the way of peace.
  4. Repeat steps 2 and 3 for the time you have devoted to this practice.

 

 

Exercise 54: Labeling Thoughts

Background:  Once, finding information was hard.  Those of us who remember life before the internet know that once we had to research with card catalogs and microfiche readers.  At that time, the challenge was to locate anything at all on certain topics.

Today, our problem is quite the opposite.  The internet overloads us.  It is hard to imagine a topic which would not turn over results.  The issue, of course, is knowing which information is relevant and reliable.  It is no longer about finding information.  It is about filtering the excess so that we can get to what is useful.

Our brains are a lot like an internet search.  They can provide an overabundance of information.  Some of it is critical.  Other information?  Useless and unreliable.  While our brain shares with us intuitions about this person we just met or  pleasing sensory data which might help us to enjoy the moment it is also reporting our fears about tomorrow, and regrets about yesterday.  It might be replaying a script that no long applies.

This is one of the reason that contemplation is so important.  Many spiritual practices seek to turn down the volume of the brains constant broadcasts so that we can discern where the important information is.  Today’s spiritual practice calls on us to label the thinking that is going on.

It is important to remember that our brain’s job is to think.  It is unlikely we will achieve a goal of thoughtlessness.  This would be a dubious goal anyway.  My goal is to turn down the volume, not to turn it off.  When we day dream, we can return ourselves to this practice gently, with a sense of gratitude that we were able to bring ourselves back.

The Practice

  1.  Release your expectations and sense of obligations with your exhale.
  2. Inhale through the nose.
  3. Exhale through the mouth.
  4. Seek a time of mental quiet.
  5. When a thought arises, simply label it “thinking.”
  6. return to your breath.
  7. Continue this breathing, labeling of thoughts, and returning to the mental quiet for the time you have set aside for your practice this morning.

 

 

 

Exercise 53: You, who are closer than our breath, speak to us from the silence

Background:  My wonderful spiritual community is praying through the psalms, one a day.  The Pastor recommended ‘Psalms for Praying’ by Nan C. Merrill.  I had planned on ignoring her.  I felt like I could navigate through the difficult language that pops up in many of the psalms as they are traditionally translated.  Then she gave me the book, and it felt ungrateful not to read them there.  And I was glad I did.

As we read psalm 45, I approached it in a lectio-kind of mind set, looking for some words that spoke to me.  A few stanzas in, I came to this: “You, who are closer than our breath/  speak to us from the silence.”  As you can see below, I took a few minor liberties with the phrasing.

It felt right to build in increasing empty spaces in this exercise.  A precise count is not particularly important.  Therefore, one approach to “five deep breaths” Is to simply accept that 4 or 6 will also do.  The alternative is to use the thumb and finger tips to help keep track: On the first breath, touch thumb of both hands to pointer finger of both hands.  On the second breath, thumb to middle finger.  On the third thumb to ring finger.  On the fourth thumb to pinky.

The Exercise

  1.  Release your worries and expectations with a deep exhale.
  2. Inhale.
  3. Take two more deep, cleansing breaths.
  4. With the next inhale, think or say “You are closer than our breath.”
  5. With the next exhale, think or say “Speak to us from your silence.”
  6. Inhale.  Exhale.
  7. With the next inhale, think or say “You are closer than our breath.”
  8. With the next exhale, think or say “Speak to us from your silence.”
  9. Take two deep breath.
  10. With the next inhale, think or say “You are closer than our breath.”
  11. With the next exhale, think or say “Speak to us from your silence.”
  12. Take three deep breaths.
  13. With the next inhale, think or say “You are closer than our breath.”
  14. With the next exhale, think or say “Speak to us from your silence.”
  15. Take four deep breaths.
  16. With the next inhale, think or say “You are closer than our breath.”
  17. With the next exhale, think or say “Speak to us from your silence.”
  18. Spend a time in wordless communion.  Try to release all of the words.
  19. When you feel that you have begun to drift off, or are ready to resume the practice,  With the next inhale, think or say “You are closer than our breath.”
  20. With the next exhale, think or say “Speak to us from your silence.”
  21. Take four deep breaths.
  22. With the next inhale, think or say “You are closer than our breath.”
  23. With the next exhale, think or say “Speak to us from your silence.”
  24. Take three deep breaths.
  25. With the next inhale, think or say “You are closer than our breath.”
  26. With the next exhale, think or say “Speak to us from your silence.”
  27. Take two deep breaths.
  28. With the next inhale, think or say “You are closer than our breath.”
  29. With the next exhale, think or say “Speak to us from your silence.”
  30. Take one deep breath.
  31. With the next inhale, think or say “You are closer than our breath.”
  32. With the next exhale, think or say “Speak to us from your silence.

Know that you can return to these phrases through out your day.

 

 

Exercise 52: Metta (Loving-Kindness Meditation)

Background

This is not the first description of a Loving-Kindness meditation here at The Faith-ing Project.  It was observed that the previous description though omitted a traditional and important element of the practice.

An important aspect of the traditional loving-kindness meditation is challenge to love people who we might have difficulties with.  The description below includes this element.

The English translations of the precise sentences to be used vary somewhat.  There is also some variance on the precise order and groups that those key sentences are applied to.  In particular, different practices will focus on the act of receiving love in different ways and at different times.  One aspect of this is where to wish ourselves those several statements.

It seems that one important element of this timing is precisely how we feel about ourselves.  Since the practice begins with the easy and works up toward the difficult, loving the self ought to be the very first thing some people do, and the final step for others.

Before you begin this practice, it is wise to have given a little bit of thought to who you will bring to mind for each of the following categories:

  • Someone whom you love very much.  They might be alive or dead.  It could be someone you see frequently or see rarely.  Mentors, parents, children, best friends, and significant others fall into this category.
  • Someone whom you feel ambivalent or neutral to.  This could be a casual aquaintance, a coworker, a distant relative, or someone whom you are growing apart from.
  • Someone who actively annoys you, or who you have to work at liking.  As your familiarity with this practice gradually increases, you might gradually attempt people who you more intensely dislike.

After you attempt this practice as written you might wish to change the order, or even research other ways to try this practice.

The Practice

  1.  Sit comfortably.
  2. Take 3 deep breaths: inhalations and exhalations.
  3.  Now bring to mind the person who you love to most.  See them in your mind’s eye wearing an outfit they would be likely to be in.  Hear their voice.  Bring to mind any scents or other sensations you might associate with them.
  4. With your next inhale, think or say, “May you be healthy.”  Exhale.
  5. With your next inhale, think or say, “May you be happy.”  Exhale.
  6. With your next inhale, think or say, “May you be free.”  Exhale.
  7. Inhale.  Exhale.
  8. Bring to mind the person you feel neutral or ambivalent about.  See them as with as many senses as possible.
  9. With your next inhale, think or say, “May you be healthy.”  Exhale.
  10. With your next inhale, think or say, “May you be happy.”  Exhale.
  11. With your next inhale, think or say, “May you be free.”  Exhale.
  12. Inhale.  Exhale.
  13. Now, bring to mind that person you struggle with.  Try and experience them vividly in your mind.  Be an interested observer to any feelings this brings up in you.
  14. With your next inhale, think or say, “May you be healthy.”  Exhale.
  15. With your next inhale, think or say, “May you be happy.”  Exhale.
  16. With your next inhale, think or say, “May you be free.”  Exhale.
  17. Inhale.  Exhale.
  18.  Now, it is time for you.  See yourself in your mind’s eye.  It might be helpful to try and see yourself through the eyes of the person you first focused on.  Or make an attempt at seeing yourself through God’s eyes.
  19. With your next inhale, think or say, “May I be healthy.”  Exhale.
  20. With your next inhale, think or say, “May I be happy.”  Exhale.
  21. With your next inhale, think or say, “May I be free.”  Exhale.
  22. Inhale.  Exhale.

Exercise 51: A Mindful Body Scan

Background: The body scan is a well-loved mindfulness exercise.  This is a practice which invites us to carefully survey the body and to explore how it is feeling.  One of the objectives is to compare how the different body parts feel. Those parts of us that feel relaxed are contrasted with the places we feel tense.   

It’s a powerful thing, to note what feels comfortable.  Just as watching the example of someone performing well is often more helpful than analyzing what is wrong, finding parts of the body which are comfortable allows us to use them as a sort of example in how to bring that comfort elsewhere.

 

On this approach, the soreness is simply noted.  Noticing has a strange kind of power in contemplation.  Sometimes, just the act of noticing is enough to make the situation feel better.  It is a bit like putting a band aid on the “owie” of a small child.

The exercise that is on the next page is written with this simple approach of merely noticing.  After you feel comfortable with this, you might try the following variations and see how they work for you.  These variations bring a more active focus to the places which do not feel comfortable.  

The first variation is to “breathe into” the hurt.   As we inhale, we imagine the breath going straight to the place that is sore.  Envisioning the breath coming to work on the painful place can be very effective.

The second  variation is to turn the attention to relaxing the area.  Here, we will the muscles themselves to relax. Sometimes it is helpful to begin with the surrounding area and work our way inward, toward the center of the discomfort.  

After a particularly good body scan, I become delightfully aware of the ways my body parts are all connected.  I notice the joints, ligaments, and places that connect one part of me to another. I get this sense of being a single, unified body rather than just a collection of parts.   

 

The Exercise

 

  •  Inhale.  
  • Exhale.
  • Inhale again, and turn the attention to the soles of both feet.  Explore them front to back, or left to right. Let yourself become aware of where they are and how they are feeling.
  • Now, draw your attention up through the tops of the feet.  
  • Become aware of the ankles and lower calves.  Continue to be aware of how these body parts are feeling.  
  • In your mind’s eye, see your shins, too.  
  • Become aware of the knees, and the area behind the knees.  Continue to draw the attention up to the thighs.
  • Remembering to continue to breathe deeply, now notice the pelvis, hips, and buttocks.
  • Bring your awareness to your lower back and abdomen.  
  • Draw your attention up, through the rib cage and shoulders.  
  • Inhale.  Exhale.
  •  Wiggle your fingers.  Bring your awareness to each finger and thumb.  Notice where they come to join the hand.
  • Feel your palm and notice the back of your hand.  
  • Continuing to breathe deeply, note your wrist and forearms.
  • Draw your attention to the elbow and upper arm.
  • Note your armpit and the place where your arm joins the body.
  • Inhale.  Exhale.
  • Turn your attention to everything below the neck.  You have become aware of that whole portion of your body.
  • Now, draw your awareness up the neck. 
  • Become aware of the jaw, and slowly draw your attention across your face.  Feel how your nose and ear sit in your skull. Become mindful of how your eyes and sinuses feel.
  •  Notice the back of your head, and slowly draw your awareness up through the very top of the scalp.
  •  Now, relax for a few minutes, enjoying the connection with your body.

 

Here is an audio file presentation of this exercise:
 

Exercise 50: A Return to the Mantra

Background: These last few practices have been rooted in the experience that changes in my breath are not caused by “me” (whatever it is that I am!)  Rather, it is the universe breathing in me.

Click here and here and here to see these practices or to read more background into this experience.

There are some who believe that there is something sacred in the precise words chosen for the mantra.  This has not been my experience.  Part of the vision of The Faith-ing Project is that you might fall in love with a certain practice and then go to the source and context of that practice, though.  If the idea that there is something sacred inherent to the sounds chosen for a mantra resonates with you, I wish you peace as you explore that possibility.

The value I see in a Mantra is in the constant repetition of a word and phrase.  One thing that happens here is that the words come to individually seem suspect.  Do they mean anything at all?  After saying them over and over again, it feels as though they individually have no meaning.  And yet, the meaning is still there.  It seems to become bigger than the individual words.  This can feel like a metaphor for the nature of the universe itself, this wearing down of the boundaries between all things.

The Practice.

  1.  Find a comfortable position.  If you can, sit straight.  Place your palms upward, in a receptive gesture.
  2. Breathe deeply three times.
  3. With the next exhale, begin your mantra.  Say it repeatedly.
  4. With the inhale, continue thinking the mantra.
  5. Fall into a rhythm if you can.  Chanting can be very powerful.
  6. When you are ready, open yourself to the possibility that this breath is not your breath.  It is the universe breathing in you.  It is the universe breathing you.
  7. Continue this for a while, chanting your mantra, holding the possibility that the universe is breathing within you.
  8. When you are ready, try on the possibility that the mantra is not your mantra.  It is not you saying it.  The mantra is the universe speaking its truth in you.
  9.  Maintain this for a while: chant the mantra.  The words and the breath are not you or yours.  You are the universe’s instrument.
  10. When you are ready, on the inhale, hear the mantra still being said.  This is a goal for mantra-based meditation.  To see the speaking of the words as just taking up a mantra that is already in the air.
  11. Release the mantra and sit in a time of worldess union.

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